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At Last, They're Home

The black T-shirt Central Point resident Cindy Lebel was wearing said it all in bright yellow letters, "Welcome Home — My soldier, My hero, My husband."

With their four young boys in reserve, all proudly sporting T-shirts welcoming home their father, Pfc. Robert Lebel, 33, she was among hundreds of loved ones gathered early Saturday afternoon at the Medford Armory for local members of the Oregon Army National Guard returning from Iraq.

"The boys are so anxious — this has been a long-awaited, happy day for all of us," she said as she kept glancing toward Highway 99 for the buses carrying some 320 citizen soldiers of the Guard's 1st Battalion 186th Infantry, headquartered in Ashland.

A roar rose from the crowd at the sound of the deep rumble of motorcycles ridden by leather-jacketed veterans escorting the buses. Although the soldiers had been scheduled to fly from Fort Lewis, Wash., a late change put them on buses for the demobilization ceremony.

The Lebel family craned their necks as soldiers strode from the buses, then erupted in squeals of joy when Pfc. Lebel stepped out of the crowd. His smile was nearly as wide as his outspread arms as his wife and children ran to him.

"This feels so great — it has been a long year for us," the soldier said later, noting he had just completed basic training before being deployed.

"I've been away from home long enough," he added, noting the family plans to take a vacation to Disneyland next month.

"I'm in shock right now — it's unbelievable," his wife said as she continued to hug her husband. "It's like a dream. We're so glad he's home."

Similar reunions were held on the sidewalk and in the parking lot as the suntanned soldiers of the 1/186th disembarked into a sea of yellow balloons and signs welcoming them home.

They were among the some 600 soldiers from the unit deployed to Iraq last July as part of 2,800 troops from the Guard's 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team.

The 1/186th has units in Ashland, Medford, Grants Pass, Roseburg, Coos Bay and St. Helens. The deployment was the largest in Oregon since World War II.

Donavan Fleming of Medford, 21/2 years old, wearing an identical uniform as his father, including the Fleming name tag, grinned shyly when Spc. Jason Fleming of Medford scooped him up in his arms. The little boy had waited patiently with half a dozen family members waiting for the buses.

"It feels really good to be home," said the full-time Guard specialist said as he held his son. "But I enjoyed the tour. It was a lot of fun. I was surrounded by a lot of really good guys."

Spc. Erick Calvo, 21, of Grants Pass, also complimented his comrades at arms after reuniting with his mother, Susan Calvo, and girlfriend, Holley Elliott.

"The tour was long but we got it done right — no major injuries for our unit," said the soldier, a student at Southern Oregon University.

Falling down a set of stairs at her family's Coos Bay home and breaking her right leg didn't stop Daphne Sceriven, 4, from being there for her father, Sgt. Chad Sceriven. With her mom, Ellen Sceriven, pushing her wheelchair, the girl with her leg in a cast held up a sign announcing, "I miss you, daddy."

After greeting their loved ones, most soldiers stood in awe of the homecoming crowd.

"This reception is incredible," said Spc. Justin Ferren, 22, of Coquille, after spending nearly five minutes in a bear hug with his wife, Kerrie, and son, Thomas, 31/2.

"I can't believe how many people are out here for us. The support is amazing," his wife added.

Sgt. Jesse Claus of Boise, Idaho, was met by his parents, Hans and Christie Claus, also of Boise.

"I love you — the drive was worth it," said his father, a Vietnam War-era Army veteran who gave the sergeant a long, tearful hug. His mother shrieked and burst into tears when their smiling son emerged from a bus.

Sgt. Joshua Phillips, 24, a 2004 graduate of Crater High School, was met by his wife, Jennifer, and niece Kaylee Taylor. The Phillips' now live in Yelm, Wash.

"I had worked at Fort Lewis for a while but came back down for the deployment to go with my battle buddies," explained Sgt. Phillips, whose job is to train soldiers. "I wanted to look out for them over there.

"Our guys did a great job," he added. "They are real professionals — the Oregon Guard. Our brothers from Southern Oregon are high speed, low drag."

He also had high praise for the warm welcome.

"This is the 'Welcome Home' everybody dreamed of," he said.

That sentiment warmed the heart of Roseburg resident Howard Hudson, 60, an Army veteran of Vietnam who led the motorcycle escort south from Roseburg. He is a member of the In Country Vietnam Motorcycle Club.

"It makes me feel good to see this homecoming," he said. "These guys go over there together, stay together, come back together. We went over in ones and twos, came back the same way. This is the way it should be."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

About 320 Oregon Army National Guard soldiers returning from Iraq marched in a parade on Monroe Street Saturday before a demobilization ceremony at South Medford High School. - Jamie Lusch